Scott Co­nant may be a star chef, but he keeps the spot­light di­rected squarely at his dishes

Sharp - - CONTENTS - By Chef Tommy Mchugh TOMMY MCHUGH is the ex­ec­u­tive chef at STK in Toronto. Look for more of his con­ver­sa­tions with culi­nary leg­ends in this col­umn.

We talk to Scott Co­nant about cook­ing, TV, and the per­ils of celebrity.

JAMES BEARD AWARD WIN­NER Scott Co­nant is a reg­u­lar on tele­vi­sion shows like Chopped and Top Chef — but don’t call him a celebrity. The 46-year-old Con­necti­cut na­tive started off like most chefs: draw­ing in­flu­ence from his cul­tural back­ground — in this case, the meals cooked by his Ital­ian grand­mother. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica, he did stints cook­ing in New York and Mu­nich. Then he re­turned to his roots, eat­ing his way across Italy in a rental car and ce­ment­ing his love of the coun­try and its food. Upon re­turn­ing to New York, he opened Scar­petta — the first in a string of highly ac­claimed restau­rants. We asked him to dish on re­cent culi­nary TV trends — and the kitchen tool he can’t live with­out.

Why was work­ing in Europe an im­por­tant part of your train­ing?

Cook­ing with old-school chefs gave me a broader per­spec­tive. Back in the day, there was no glam­our in this in­dus­try. Money was some­thing you needed to get by — it wasn’t why we cooked. I started cook­ing strictly for the love of the game. In Italy, a chef I’d be work­ing for would say, “I’ve got a friend in Puglia,” and then I’d spend my last dol­lars cross­ing the coun­try to cook with him.

How has be­ing a celebrity chef in­flu­enced your ca­reer?

Well, I never think of my­self as a celebrity. I think of my­self as a cook first and an en­tre­pre­neur sec­ond, but never as a celebrity. The way I look at it, tele­vi­sion is sim­ply an ad­ver­tis­ing plat­form. My real busi­ness is restau­rants, and I work a lot to grow my com­pany.

How has food tele­vi­sion changed since the days of Ju­lia Child?

The Food Net­work made culi­nary tele­vi­sion and great chefs like Mario Batali and Bobby Flay a lot more main­stream. But ev­ery­thing is still in a con­stant state of change. Take, for in­stance, the rise of com­pe­ti­tion shows — which are re­ally more per­son­al­ity based than food based. An­other change is the rise of food per­son­al­i­ties, who tend to be in­ter­view­ers skilled at talk­ing to peo­ple who cook, as op­posed to chefs them­selves.

Why are cook­ing shows so pop­u­lar?

The feed­back I get from peo­ple is that they’re the last form of fam­ily-friendly en­ter­tain­ment. Peo­ple of all gen­er­a­tions can sit to­gether and watch. You don’t have to worry about ex­plicit con­tent or foul lan­guage. They’re whole­some.

A Miche­lin-starred chef once told me that din­ers are more crit­i­cal now, due to so­cial me­dia. Do you agree?

I’m not sure it’s only so­cial me­dia. The ac­cess we have to food and restau­rants is at an all-time high. There’s no hid­ing be­hind things. Peo­ple see food on TV, so­cial me­dia, Youtube, and they want to en­gage with it, they want to ex­pe­ri­ence it, one way or an­other.

What’s the most im­por­tant piece of equip­ment for a chef ?

I can’t work with­out a great spoon. I al­ways have a Kunz spoon in my apron pocket. At a big­ger scale than that, well, I have an Ital­ian restau­rant — so a pasta ma­chine or an ex­truder.

What’s the most out­ra­geous re­quest you’ve ever re­ceived at a restau­rant?

Some­body came in and wanted one of Eric Ripert’s dishes. I love Eric — he’s one of the best chefs in the world — but I’m not go­ing to try to recre­ate his dish!

What’s your go-to late-night meal?

My waist­line wishes it was an ap­ple, but it’s a chicken cut­let on a hero, with let­tuce, tomato, hot sauce, and plenty of may­on­naise. I could eat that ev­ery day of my life.

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